The Black Pearls of Tahiti
When the opportunity arose to write travel-inspired Sleep Stories for Calm, I jumped at the chance to share my journey as a volunteer on a Tahitian black pearl farm many years ago.
More than seven years have gone by since my trip to French Polynesia, but I’ll never forget how I felt when I first discovered the pearl farm. I had an overwhelming sense of curiosity and anticipation, as I wondered, What exactly is a black pearl farm anyways? I was living in New Zealand at the time, but before heading back to the U.S., I wanted to spend a little more time in the South Pacific.
During my year in New Zealand, I’d heard about an organization called WWOOF, short for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The idea behind WWOOF (besides its rather comical acronym of a name) is that farms around the world can host volunteers, who perform light tasks for a few hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation. To me, it sounded like the perfect way to dig a little deeper into a place, and to form connections I might not have made if I had simply been passing through as a traveler.
I bought a membership for WWOOF and began looking through the different volunteering opportunities that were available — and that’s when I stumbled across a listing in French Polynesia that immediately caught my attention. The listing was for a family-owned black pearl farm called Kamoka, built on a tiny coral atoll called Ahe in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Despite Ahe’s remote location, it was only a short flight away from the country’s capital, Papeete, on the island of Tahiti.
As I stepped off the small Air Tahiti plane at Ahe’s airport and onto its single dusty runway, I knew I was in for an adventure.
The farm, I discovered, was a square wooden building set up on stilts over the lagoon. A narrow, rickety bridge connected the farm to the atoll itself, where a collection of bungalows had been built among the groves of coconut trees. I was delighted to be given my own bungalow to stay in during my three weeks on the farm. The bungalow’s bright blue walls were nearly the same shade of turquoise as the lagoon, which was now only steps away from my new front door.
As I stood inside my bungalow and gazed out the door, the view that filled its frame was everything we always associate with paradise: wide blue skies, an even bluer lagoon, and graceful palm trees, their verdant fronds shimmering in the balmy tropical breeze. But here’s what I enjoyed most about my stay on the pearl farm — instead of being a passive observer of paradise, I loved getting to be an active participant.
For the first time as a traveler, I had a job to do.
Once you have a chance to listen to the new Sleep Story I wrote about my time on Ahe, The Black Pearls of Tahiti, then you might hear (if you're not already asleep) the scene where I describe going out on the lagoon in a silver, flat-bottomed jon boat. I wrote about the men who work on the farm and how they free-dive meters below the lagoon’s surface to where the oysters are grown, kept inside long wire baskets.
During my first two weeks on the pearl farm, I woke up at sunrise every morning, had a simple breakfast of coffee and crackers, and then went out with the men in the boat. While some workers put on flippers and dove below the surface, I stayed behind to help heave the baskets into the boat and then lower them down again into the water, when they were transferred to a different location in the lagoon. This process went on day after day, morning after morning, as the oysters were tended and cared for — and hopefully, as the pearls inside them continued to grow.
Finally, during my third and last week on the pearl farm, it was time for the harvest, which I also wrote about at the end of my Sleep Story. Again, I had a job to do, and this time, it was drilling holes in up to 200 oysters a day — after they had been grafted with a new nucleus of mother-of-pearl shell and were ready to be hung again in another basket, before being lowered back down into the lagoon.
I loved having a job and feeling like I was a real part of the harvest, but every now and then, I would sneak away from my post to watch another aspect of the harvest unfold. It just so happened that there was a pearl buyer named Kristin on the farm that week, who owned a pearl business in Canada and had traveled all the way to Ahe to buy pearls directly from Kamoka.
At the end of each day during the harvest, Kristin would slowly sift through the pearls that been harvested that day, pausing to consider their size, sheen, and how they might fit together in sets and strands. It was mesmerizing to watch Kristin at work, and to think about the journey that each of these pearls would take — from the oyster to the grafter to the designer, who would soon carry them thousands of miles away to their final destination.
Seven years later, I’m also now a world away from the pearl farm (in both time and distance), but I’m grateful to still be in touch with Kamoka’s owners. Every time I see them share new Tahitian black pearls that are available for sale, I can’t help but smile and remember the time I got to see such pearls at their source.
So, too, do I remember life on the pearl farm — all those early mornings on the lagoon, the long work sessions during the harvest, and how it felt to come home to a bright blue bungalow every evening. I remember the postcard-worthy vista from its front porch, where I would sit for hours each night beneath a sky blazing with stars and listen to the rhythm of the waves only steps away. Long before I discovered a meditation practice of my own, Ahe taught me what it means to slow down, breathe more deeply, and live in greater harmony with the natural world around us.
It was an honor to try and capture some of Ahe’s peace and presence in my first Sleep Story for Calm, and I so hope you enjoy listening to The Black Pearls of Tahiti.